Seat Belt Scare on Father's Day 2011 - Keep a Sharp Object in Your Car

Note: This was originally posted on July 13, 2011 but since several commenters have experienced the same issue with seat belts that will not retract, I am moving this front and center once again. Please be extra cautious with kids and seat belts.

Father's Day was outstanding for me and my family. Family lunch in Ojai and bicyling in Ventura. But something happened that could have made this the worst day of my life.


After we finished riding bicycles and playing around at the beach we came back to the car. My wife asked if she could buy something with my older son as my 5 year old, teenage stepson and I waited in the car. We were pretty tired from the day's activities.

Within 15 minutes my 5 year old started doing what 5 year olds do. Goof off. Play around, move around, get into trouble. Before I know it he's sitting in the passenger seat and had the seatbelt on. He knows he's not supposed to be in the front seat. As I was messing around with my phone, I told him to take the seatbelt off and get into the backseat.

Of course he didn't listen. The rest is a blur. We unbuckled the seat belt. I told him to get in the back seat again again, he kept messing around. I look over and the seat belt was wrapped around his belly. One last time, I tell him to take it off as I was relaxing and engrossed in Tweets and Facebook. The teenager was in very back of the minivan, headphones on.

You know the way it goes. I lost my temper and told him ONE LAST TIME to take it off, at which point I realize that he appears to be stuck. The seat belt has retracted with him in it. And he can't get out.

I tug on the belt but realize that isn't helping. The belt is now FIRMLY around his belly and with every little move, the belt tightens even more.  We can't slide it off or move it.

Quickly I jump out of the car to try to remove the seat belt anchor. It's no use, there's no "button" on it to remove it. This thing continues to tighten. At that point my teenager's trying to help, also to no avail.

Only a few minutes have passed but this has quickly become an emergency. The belt isn't around his neck (thank God) but it is so tight that he is bound to suffocate before our eyes if we don't get it off of his belly.

The good and potentially life saving news is that I had a pair of fingernail scissors in the car. I really did not want to have to use them. I'm thinking "No, no, this kid isn't going to have to make me cut this seat belt off, is he?" But with my 5 year old in panic and shock, there was no more hesitation. As you can see from the picture above, I had to slice the seat belt to save my son. What a bizarre and scary Father's Day twist.

My wife got back and helped soothe our son. I was pretty shaken up too but at the same time IRKED by the fact that this damn seat belt did not have a release button. I was also thinking how much it was going to cost to replace that belt.

Yes, this was the most expensive Father's Day ever. A lovely brunch followed by a $350 seat belt replacement. They had to replace the ENTIRE unit, not just the belt part itself.

I called Toyota the next day to report the issue. The rep was nice over the phone but told me they could not help me out financially. Thanks a lot Toyota. Your seat belt damn near killed my kid and you won't help me out.

I had planned to write about this that night, then hesitated out of embarrassment, thinking people would judge me for "allowing" this to happen. In hindsight, I should have immediately taken him out of the car. He was bored and needed attention, as tired as the rest of us were from a long day.

But I realized that I HAVE TO share this story as it may save a life. In fact, this is not the first time this has happened. Retractable seat belts can KILL unwitting kids: 9-year old nearly strangled by seat belt, a teenager was strangled by a seat belt.

LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) belt systems for child seats are great but they leave the shoulder belt unused and exposed to the possibility of a fidgety kid messing around with it and putting themselves in danger too. 

 These little 3 1/2 inch long fingernail scissors may have saved the life of my 5 year old.

These little 3 1/2 inch long fingernail scissors may have saved the life of my 5 year old.

My Advice:

1. First and foremost, NEVER leave your kid alone in the car. The car is not a playground.

2. Keep your little kids AWAY from the seat belts. As discussed above, they may not retract and kids can get entangled in them. It can happen VERY quickly, I can tell you with certainty.

3. Keep a sharp object in the car (out of sight and reach of the kids of course). There are many items you should keep in your car for emergency situations, but among them keep a pair of scissors or a knife.

4. If you have young kids and are using the LATCH system, lock up or restrain your shoulder seat belts. They are dangerous.